Trial and Heir

In the trial of the decade, Butch Harrod is found guilty of the 1988 murder of wealthy Phoenix widow Jeanne Tovrea

James Cornell "Butch" Harrod is on trial, possibly for his life. He's on the witness stand, trying to convince a jury that he didn't commit one of Arizona's most sensational murders.

He's accused of the April 1, 1988, execution of wealthy Phoenix heiress Jeanne Tovrea, who was shot to death as she lay in bed at her sprawling home off East Lincoln Drive.

Jeanne Tovrea was the widow of Edward Tovrea Sr., patriarch of a pioneer Arizona family. She was 55, and Ed's third wife.

One of Harrod's attorneys, Mike Bernays, hopes to show jurors that his client is an entrepreneur, not a hit man. Referring to Harrod's many business ventures--none of them successful--Bernays says, "You seem to have this attitude that something you're interested in, you're going to give it a try."

Harrod replies with the fervor of a motivational speaker: "There's no such thing as failure. . . . Failure is when you don't try something. Some of the biggest people in history have, quote, been failures. . . . You have to step outside of the comfort zone to do it, which means you have to step out on a limb."

Those words will come back to haunt Harrod.
At the close of the most cinematic murder trial in memory, prosecutor Bill Culbertson will remind jurors that Butch Harrod had done just that: He'd stepped out on a limb for Jeanne Tovrea's stepson, Hap Tovrea, in a contract killing that remained unsolved until Harrod's arrest more than eight years after the murder.

"The weight of the state's case has snapped that limb out from under him like a dry twig," Culbertson says.

It's Monday, November 17, and Butch Harrod's judgment day is near.
After more than a month in trial, closing arguments are imminent in room 402 of Maricopa County Superior Court's central building. The jury will begin deliberations after that.

The lawyers have distinguished themselves. Prosecutors Paul Ahler and Bill Culbertson have labored with precision and passion; defense attorneys Mike Bernays and Tonya McMath have fought hard every step of the way.

The proceedings before Judge Ronald Reinstein have lured the courthouse cognoscenti. "A lot better than Symington," a longtime court watcher sniffed one day, referring to the ex-governor's federal trial last summer. "This one has it all."

So it does, except for much doubt in the outcome. Early in the trial, prosecutors presented powerful evidence that Harrod left 18 fingerprints at the crime scene--including 12 on a kitchen window through which he and possibly others entered the victim's home.

The defense has posed a theory about how Harrod's fingerprints and a palm print came to be at the crime scene: In an effort to frame Harrod for the murder, someone somehow secured his prints and transferred them to a prosthetic rubber glove. The bad guys then took the "hand" with them to Jeanne Tovrea's home and stuck Harrod's prints in crucial locations.

It's a reach, to put it mildly, but the defense team has to try something.
Harrod's fingerprints, however, don't provide motive.
The prosecution theory centers on a murder-for-hire plot motivated by greed.
The short version:

Ed Tovrea Sr., a World War II hero, returns to run his family's mammoth cattle operations. He marries, starts a family, then gets divorced in the mid-1960s. Around 1970, he meets Jeanne Gunter, a waitress at a Scottsdale bar. They fall in love and marry. Jeanne is a loyal companion. He dies in 1983 after a long illness, bequeathing to her, among other benefits, more than $4 million formerly slated for his three children--Ed Jr. ("Hap"), Georgia ("Cricket") and Priscilla.

That money is to revert to the children only after Jeanne's death.
Skip to prosecutor Paul Ahler's closing argument:
"Ed Tovrea was quite a man. This man had some substance to him. You don't survive 33 months in a POW camp without having something going for you. . . . Unfortunately, he didn't give those same characteristics to his children. Because it was those children who were the driving force in getting [Harrod] to kill her.

"Clearly, his intention was to take care of Jeanne, was to support her as she had supported him. . . . What he really did was to sign her death warrant when he signed that will. It sealed her fate, because the only way they could get their hands on that money was to have her dead. Their greed knew no bounds."

None of Ed Tovrea's children has been charged in this case; in police interviews, each has denied wrongdoing.

After Ed Sr.'s death, relations between his progeny and their stepmother turn icy. In 1985, Cricket Tovrea convinces a funeral home to give her her father's ashes. Cricket divvies up the remains among her siblings and her mother, which infuriates Jeanne.

Jeanne apparently never talks to the "kids" again.
In mid-1987, Jeanne agrees to meet in Newport Beach, California, with a man who calls himself Gordon Phillips. Phillips has told her he's a writer for Time Life and wants to do a story about Ed Tovrea's military exploits.

Possibly unknown to Phillips, Jeanne's only child, Debbie Nolan, and her future husband, Mike Luster, are staying with her. Debbie is struck during Phillips' half-hour visit by his seeming lack of interest in Ed Sr.'s story--ostensibly why he's there.

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